The men who speak with God’s voice

Whenever I think about God nowadays, usually, two things happen. First, I draw a blank. Then, I notice the voices.

The voices that I internalized, as a result of years spent in several conservative Muslim communities.

What does it mean when your god loves everything that you love, and can’t stand all the stuff that you can’t stand? Doesn’t that mean that you have created a god in your own image?
(Photo: Remi Mathis

The voices have a lot to say. About everything. About how the world “should” be.

The voices are not disembodied. They issue forth from human beings.

“That’s odd,” I think. “After all, as Muslims we don’t believe that God has a form or a body. God is beyond human characteristics like gender and race and class. So, why is it that I can’t think about God without these embodied voices intruding?”

The voices are male. They speak very confidently. They are very sure that they know exactly who God is, and what God thinks about everything. They know what God wants them to do, and even more, what God wants other people to do. Especially women. Especially me.

The voice I hear most often is a long-bearded male voice. He wears a thawb and a kufi. From a distance, I can see him hanging out with the brothers, laughing and joking with them. With the brothers, he is fairly relaxed. He does demand a lot from them, but he gives them some room to learn and grow from their mistakes, and has some sympathy for their foibles and failings. But, he usually has a serious look on his face when he is dealing with the sisters. He thinks that women are not as intelligent as men, and that what we most need is to be reminded of our duties and how we are falling short. But he doesn’t have much time for us anyway. Maybe that’s just as well, because when he speaks to us, there’s a lot of admonition and warning about being led astray by our nafs. Just as well if he stays over with the brothers, fist-bumping that one (Sunni) guy who’s bragging about this hot mut’a wife he had a couple of years ago….

The god who speaks with this voice does not deign to hear my prayers. This god has very little time for women anyway, and does not even bother to look at any woman who is not devoutly obedient, self-effacing, perfectly modest, domestic, and content with her lot in life (regardless of what that might be). A woman who asks “why” does not deserve to be actually heard—at best, she might be patronizingly told that she is contaminated by modernity and feminism and is rebelling against the divine will, or reminded that good women are not only obedient, but are effortlessly so. Because good women don’t overthink things, they just cheerfully and self-sacrificingly do what they are supposed to do.

*                                 *                                    *

There’s another voice, though. It’s not quite as crudely patriarchal. It’s a man speaking with an Arab accent, and wearing a safari suit. He has a short, neatly clipped beard. He is giving a talk about Islam, and although his hair is going gray, he’s young enough to know how to use Powerpoint. He rattles on through the slides. It’s a well-honed talk, one that he has been giving for the last three decades at least, and it covers everything from violence (“‘Islam’ has the same root as the Arabic word for ‘peace'”) to the status of women (“Islam gave women rights 1400 years ago”). Now, it’s question time. A few people try to ask some good questions that go beyond the sound-bites of the presentation. The man responds with brief, pat answers, and quickly moves along to the next questioner. Teflon Man. He’s had lots of practice at this sort of thing.

Then, a woman asks why, if according to Islam, men and women are equal before God, and woman are protected from abuse, that a woman can’t divorce herself, even if she is being abused, while a man can divorce his wife for any or no reason, and it’s legally valid? The man responds that in Islam, the priority is on keeping the family together. Therefore, a man should not divorce his wife without a good reason, because “divorce causes the throne of God to shake.” As for the limitations placed on a wife’s access to divorce, this is for the good of the family, as women are more emotional than men. And with that put-down (and unsupported generalization), he effortlessly moves along to the next question, which he clearly finds much more relevant—it is about how Muslims can challenge media bias.

The god who speaks with this voice does not, cannot, hear my prayers. This god communicates to women through his male intermediaries, in carefully measured sound-bites. He has provided a simple, apparently straightforward and easy-to-follow map to a righteous life in this world and paradise in the next. Laid out in Powerpoint slides. That should be more than enough. There are no complex or difficult questions. And if the map doesn’t take you to where you are trying to go, then either you have somehow departed from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, or you just aren’t trying hard enough. There is nothing more to say.

*                                       *                                           *

There’s another voice. Yet another bearded man, in carefully tailored Traditional Islamic yet contemporary men’s attire, with an Islamic designer label. He effortlessly moves between American English and faultless Arabic. This voice acknowledges that Islam has too often been used in order to justify the abuse of women.

This voice sounds as though it understands, as though it really hears, as though it truly cares. This voice condemns men who quote sacred texts in order to justify abuse as “animals” who need to be tamed—by being exposed to Islam as a wholistic tradition. As a wholistic, 1400-year-old tradition of pious scholarship, which was not just about texts, but even more so, about cultivating the whole person.

This voice is all sympathy and caring… until you question this rosy picture. Until you begin to ask critical questions, and compare the “wholistic” traditional ideal with lived realities. Until you get down to the details of what this idealistic vision actually mean for women.

The god who speaks with this voice cannot stomach my prayers. Cannot bear the prayers of anyone—especially anywoman—who can’t be placated with profound-sounding but canned answers. Whose thought-processes unfortunately can’t be stilled forever by phrases like “…as my teacher, Shaykh X, taught me…”, “…as we are honored to read…” or by appeals to “sacred tradition.”

*                                             *                                       *

Sometimes, god speaks with other male voices as well. But they all have one thing in common:  These voices of God just talk. They don’t hear.

Like the idols worshipped by Abraham’s father, they don’t hear. They can’t deal with the complexities of real human beings. They are rock-hard and unyielding, and they have no real compassion.

They don’t see women as true human beings. Not in the sense that men are. So, they can’t deal with a woman who can’t be convinced to stay in her “proper place.” Who won’t just gratefully leave the Really Important Issues to the men to worry about, and get back to the kitchen, or the Sister’s Section, where she belongs.

*                                             *                                       *

If God is as these voices represent God as, then this is a god who pulls wings off flies.

Or more charitably, maybe just a rather clueless god, who has never quite gotten around to noticing how over half of humanity thinks and feels.

Or maybe an amoral, pragmatically realistic god, who decided long ago to side with those who hold the power—male elites—and has little to say to anyone else.

Isn’t it amazing how we, with our horror of committing shirk—associating partners with God, or worshipping anything other than God, or believing things about God that are not befitting of the divine… ended up mired in shirk.

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  1. #1 by deepwatrcreatur on July 29, 2012 - 1:58 am

    Somehow we have lost the concept of a living, evolving tradition that is responsive to people’s concerns. The example that you give is excellent; there is an urgent need to give women equal access to divorce, and any arguments to the contrary will not withstand critical examination.

  2. #2 by Chinyere on July 31, 2012 - 1:02 am

    “Isn’t it amazing how we, with our horror of committing shirk—associating partners with God, or worshipping anything other than God, or believing things about God that are not befitting of the divine… ended up mired in shirk.”

    Yep, I was thinking this, I’m not sure when and in what context…but it’s true. Too many extras have been lauded and placed on pedestals too close to God, so much so that this Ramadan I’m trying to get back to God and block out those voices and narratives that quote things that I’ll never have access to but I’m supposed to take as authoritative and I’m just supposed to take it obediently, like they’re God.

    Because the imams and the jurists and the scholars won’t intercede for anyone at Judgment Day, and yet how many of us follow them (or aspire to follow them) faithfully?

    I like the commenter above’s statement about losing the concept of the “living, evolving tradition.” When I was introduced to Islam through my mother, it was very much alive and in motion. The Islam I would learn in years outside of my home was stilted and static, like the difference between true or false and free response. And thank you so much for writing and reflecting, because this is helping me get my Islam back.

  3. #3 by xcwn on August 1, 2012 - 3:25 am

    Deepwatrcreatur—I think that the idea of a living, evolving tradition responsive to people’s needs has been held hostage to identity politics (among other things) for a while now, at least in the communities that I was involved in.

    Chinyere—Thank you. I am glad if this is helpful to anyone.

    • #4 by deepwatrcreatur on August 1, 2012 - 3:58 am

      I agree that identity concerns have really stifled inquiry into things like gender roles. It really bugs me that very few community leaders will identify as feminists, although the label is somewhat problematic in the wider culture as well. For many years I was part of a group that was socially conservative and the leader would impose highly regressive views on followers while speaking-with-god’s-voice as you put it. He would recommend books like Fascinating Womanhood as a source guidance regarding gender roles. In retrospect, he derived his legitimacy from his connection to the past, to the scholarly legacy. But that legitimacy was undermined by the degree to which people suffered under his direction, and how many people he drove out of Islam altogether.

  4. #5 by xcwn on August 1, 2012 - 2:48 pm

    deepwatrcreatur—_Fascinating Womanhood_?!? Ulp. That’s really awful.

    Though, in The Cult, I was given Sachiko Murata’s _The Tao of Islam_ to read, and the Virgin Mary (as seen through very conservative eyes) was held up as a wonderful example for us to follow. Not in her single motherhood, of course, but in her “be it done unto me according to thy word” attitude. And of course, in her modesty and “purity” and eternal self-sacrifice.

    So many cults in North America seem to have been doing this sort of thing–taking the worst of “western” religious attitudes to gender, and mixing them with noxiously conservative Muslim attitudes. And then serving it up to us as “god’s unquestionable will.”

    No wonder so many have been driven out of Islam, and/or are still suffering so many destructive after-effects. Leaders like that don’t leave you anywhere to go; it’s either their way or the way to Hell. By the time you get desperate enough to decide that Hell is preferable, some really serious damage has been done.

    I hope that things are getting better for you now.

    • #6 by deepwatrcreatur on August 1, 2012 - 3:26 pm

      Things were never really bad for me as a single guy, compared to the married women who lived at the geographic centre of the cult. Of course being controlled is not a good experience for anyone, but women in particular were not considered competent to make their own decisions.

      The expectation that they should sacrifice themselves is particularly toxic. The human needs of men and women should be honoured equally, and these ideas of equality and autonomy are in obvious conflict with the hierarchy of cults. I think that so many Muslim leaders are authoritarian because they train overseas and are socialized into foreign cultures, ultimately coming to believe that such hierarchy is normative even in a Western context, or when dealing with emigres from the West.

      I’m not sure what the worst Western religious attitudes are wrt gender. Can you say a little more about that?

  5. #7 by xcwn on August 2, 2012 - 2:59 am

    deepwatrcreatur—I am not sure that the main issue is where these leaders are trained. At least, I know (or know of) some who are converts, who had pretty conservative and anti-democratic ideas before they studied abroad. Whatever they learned when they were abroad seems to have cemented what they already were. And unfortunately, there’s a ready market for authoritarian leaders in North America evidently; they certainly have enough followers.

    By worst Western religious attitudes to gender, I mean ideas that one finds in some Christian patriarchy groups, or the FLDS, or among very conservative Catholics—such as the virgin/whore binary, the idea that wives have to obey their husbands, the belief that women can’t be ordained, the idea that it is women’s responsibility not to tempt men to sin… and so on.

  1. What would a wholistic female piety look like? « A Sober Second Look

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